At time of writing, with nine games to go, there is a rising belief amongst Leeds fans that this might finally be our year. After sixteen seasons in the wilderness of the EFL, the promised land of the Premier League seems so close that we can almost touch it.
Older and, perhaps wiser, heads are urging caution; after all the ability of this club to dash hope and thwart moments of expected salvation is stuff of legend… Leeds really do fall apart on a regular basis, and that is why it hurts so much.
Since August 2018, however, a new hope has been slowly developing at Elland Road; a belief that maybe, just maybe, things are beginning to happen. We beat Stoke and Derby 3-1 and 1-4 in the opening games of that season and, for the first time in years, we looked good. More to the point we looked like we had a plan. Marcelo Bielsa went from someone that only football geeks had heard of, to the status of a demigod in the space of months.
That first season feels like a blur now, high points against Villa, Blackburn and West Brom; and then there was Wigan and that Derby second leg… hope dissolved and fear once again took over. How would we ever reach our soteriological goal.
But Bielsa stayed… we went again… we wobbled again, but this time we picked it up and ran with it… five games… five wins… five clean sheets. But though all this something was missing… yes there had been moments to savour last season, but they were erased by the disappointment of failure. After that this season has felt very workmanlike, it has lacked those iconic moments that we will look back to in years to come… those moments that will give us a warm feeling when Bielsa has left and all we have is our memories.
This started to happen with Tyler Roberts third goal against Hull, a remarkable team effort which arguably could only have been scored by a Bielsa team. The pressing to win the ball back, the intricate passing, that long diagonal pass to the feet of Costa, and Klich’s lay off to Roberts were all pure poetry… an epic in the making that will live long in the memory.
For me, however, it was in the following game against local rivals Huddersfield that the true moment of magic occurred… that iconic spectacle which is captured perfectly by the photo at the top of this piece. Ayling twats the ball off the underside of the bar in only the third minute, in a manner that Yeboah himself would have been proud. But what happens next is pure unadulterated filth…
As Ayling wheels away out comes his hair, his flowing locks floating behind him like the mane of a prize stallion as he slides to his knees in front of the Leeds bench. Then, whoever snapped the picture at the top (happy to give credit), just caught the moment right…
There is Ayling like some sort of returning prodigal son, back from the almost broken-looking person interviewed after the Forest game, in an almost messianic pose being met by Douglas and Roberts off the bench… underlying the tightness of this squad right the way though, behind them the other coaches perhaps a few moments away from piling on. Then there’s Bielsa, still sat down… unmoved as if this had all been foretold… as if this moment of sheer unadulterated passion and pleasure was just another step on the road… a stride nearer to what he sees as his duty, to get Leeds United promoted.
We later learn that he was perhaps right not to be surprised, as footage emerged of the move being practiced in training… proof that his methods worked. Vindication that for him and the players that sticking to Plan A will see us right… perhaps also vindication against the naysayers who six games before were in full panic-mode, with some even calling for his head. The prophet no longer appreciated in his own land (with the exception of Newell’s Old Boys), but who has perhaps found a salvation of his own in this corner of West Yorkshire.
Then there’s the crowd behind, the sheer unadulterated joy of a fanbase that has been through it all together… the ups, but especially the downs, at that moment in communion with with the players… a terrific feeling of oneness pervading the stadium, mixed with the relief that the first goal normally means victory.
A word too on the Cowleys in the rear of the picture… the Huddersfield manager and his brother returning to their dugout, game-plan in tatters so quickly after kick-off… back to the drawing board… searching for a way to get back into the game… as Danny Cowley said of Bielsa’s Leeds at the end:
He’s a genius. Just look at them. I mean, I think they’ve got really good players as well, I don’t take anything away from the players, but you look at the energy, the intensity, their behaviours and their habits, he must be relentless in his demands of them in training to get them to play with that physical output.
Then on the extreme right is the fourth official… standing impassive, the sort of character you tend to get in religious tableaux. Perhaps representing the unbeliever… the doubter… here adding to the contrast with those around him… of those who are beginning to see the path, out of the Championship to towards the land of milk and honey.
Leeds are not there yet, not by any stretch of the imagination… and certainly not in the minds of the rightly suspicious fanbase… but the signs are there, the portents are emerging… and it is iconic moments such as this that foment hope and belief; that we may just be marching on to the Premier League together!
Let’s hope it’s Ayling’s locks rather than Devon Lock that we think of at the end of the season.
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